Monday, July 9, 2012

It's been a year

It’s been about a year since Phoenix and I totally crashed and burned in the obedience ring following the completion of his UD. Since then, I’ve explored several different obedience training methodologies with the goal of having a joyful partner in the ring. 

If joy is present, high scores will fall in line, providing the technical skills are in place. High scores are a byproduct of a strong relationship between dog and hander. I am pretty good at teaching technical skills. Phoenix has proven I need work in the area of creating a dog who values working with me, no matter the availability of cookies and balls. I’ve never had a dog who needed that. My previous dogs JUST DID IT. They wagged their tails and went in the ring and worked happily and got OTCHs and that was that. They were totally a blessing and a curse. 

Phoenix needed more from me but I didn't know what it was.

Last summer I briefly experimented with what can only be called “boot camp” obedience training. It was not physically harsh but it was mind-numbingly boring. In spite of glowing reviews and promises of problems solved, this was definitely not going to produce the joyful partnership I was seeking. The zero-external-motivator, drill-until-you-get-it-right method left both Phoenix and I less than excited about training. Maybe that style works for some people and some dogs but it was not for us. I abandoned it and will never go back.

My second method, which DID provide some very short-lived success, was the “do no harm” method. I quit nagging Phoenix about every little mistake he made in training. I stopped being the Obedience Nazi. At that point I didn’t really give a damn if we ever won anything ever again - I just wanted my dog to be happy when we trained and showed.

This method launched us into the spring of 2012 with fabulous results - he was happy, he was winning and life was good.

Until it wasn’t. As we showed through the spring, both attitude and accuracy began to spiral downward. Although we didn’t hit the rock bottom evidenced in 2011, by late spring into summer Phoenix was clearly back to just going through the motions in the ring. Some runs were good. Others, not so much.

In March of this year, I audited a Bridget Carlsen seminar at a local training club. In June, I had a working spot at one of Denise Fenzi’s problem solving seminars near Chicago. With input from both these trainers, I am feeling better about Phoenix’s training than ever before. Our problems are far from solved but now I understand how to target our biggest issue: attitude.

Both women use highly motivating methods to create dogs who WANT to work. Make no mistake, these are not methods for a lazy trainer. Although they can be physically demanding for the handler, the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is to stop “settling” for merely adequate behaviors and ask for MORE: more effort, more enthusiasm, more speed, etc. before delivering the reward.

The thing I liked best about Bridget’s seminar was her explanation of training “in drive.” She is careful to make sure the dog is in a drive state before asking him to do anything. This ensures the dog never gets a chance to merely go through the motions. All training is done with the dog working with speed and enthusiasm. 

The thing I liked best about Denise’s seminar was her explanation of personal play to reward the dog. Too often “play” never goes further than playing tug. Playing tug is great for creating energy but it can’t go into the ring, so having a dog who thinks YOU are fun all by yourself is a huge step in overcoming ring stress, anxiety, boredom and any number of other training/showing issues.

Our learning curve continues. I've become much more interested in the process and less interested in the outcome, as determined by judges and certificates from the AKC.

This summer I’m enjoy discovering what works with Phoenix without obessing about the technical aspects of training - what brings his ears up, what makes him turn away in pissy malinois annoyance (oh yeah, that's a treat!), what he really enjoys in terms of play.

Next post: effort and how Phoenix is a reflection of my mood. They’re connected, sort of, in a weird way.


  1. Melinda, I just audited Bridget's seminar and will be attending one of Denise's in Jan. (no working spots available, maybe the next time). I really think one will compliment the other and I am looking forward to developing tools of my own to motivate my male. Like you I was having good and then not so good performances, especially now that we are in Open (and to be quite frank here, we should have put this title behind us a while ago but I allowed other things to get in the way). I knew it had to do with attitude so using your journey as my guide (yes, what you have been blogging about for the last year has spoken volumns to me and I thank you for that) I started to work on that area in training. Now with what I saw at Bridget's seminar I am retraining ME to reward in drive and to ask that he try harder. It will be slow, he's not as crazy as my young female (we'll call it "maturity", hee hee). At our last trial I saw more effort and he didn't deflate in the ring when I "helped" him fix a mistake - THAT was a biggie. Yes, our sessions are much more physical (which *I* find exciting) and I'm adding in more tricks. It is going to take a while to get it to where I want it but I think we've made strides.

    Looking forward to reading the next entry about effort. I just wanted to comment on this one before I get side tracked.

  2. I'm sorry but ... I laugh at anyone who thinks "drill until you get it right" will work with all dogs. No -- that will work with a dog who lives to please you and to work.

    Your blog makes me think I would really like to attend a Denise or Bridget seminar.